A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday 9 January 2018

The Elephant in the Brain: some notes

The Elephant in the Brain, written by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson and recently out in paperback, is best viewed as two books on connected topics. The first is a convincing argument that "the elephant" exists: that we consistently engage in self-deceptive behaviour for purposes of social gain. The second is a serious of arguments, ranging from the highly plausible to the outrageous, that this explains various the function (or malfunction) of various human social behaviours.

The Elephant

The first section of the book presents multiple lines of argument leading inexorably to the conclusion that many of our behaviours are inexplicable in the first person but are on some level intended, in a way that a third party might easily observe, towards attaining social advancement. This is made possible by the modular structure of the brain, in which sections of the brain may have the ability to make decisions but not to communicate them or defend them. Crucially, we are unable to distinguish between those actions caused by the parts of our brain which also control what we say and those caused by other parts of the brain: hence, we will typically invent justifications for such actions which will own nothing to the actual motivations behind them.

The upshot of this is that one section of the brain can engage in devious, cynical scheming, and we are free to act upon this advice while having no conscious awareness of it, and therefore being able to honestly protest complete innocence when accused of holding these devious and cynical motives.

Hanson and Simler present a range of evidence for this, which I won't reiterate partly because other reviews will cover it and partly because I didn't take very good notes and really need to reread this section of the book. What I do remember finding illuminating, however, is the way they placed features of humans in the wider context of nature. Why is the American Redwood tree so tall? On clear and flat ground, being taller doesn't allow a tree to get any more sunlight but it does mean that the tree has to acquire more nutrients and transport them further upwards. The answer, of course, is that redwoods don't originate from clear and flat ground: they have to be as tall as, or taller than, the trees around them in order to have access to sunlight. The redwoods become so tall because of competition with other redwoods.

Similarly, how did humans become as smart as demonstrated by the graph above (taken from the book)? The answer lies in not in the abilities it grants over nature, but in competition against other people. This thesis is not new to Hanson and Simler, of course, but their presentation of it is especially clear.

I have some further thoughts following from the discussion of norms and how we subvert them, but they are not developed enough to appear even in this miserable excuse for a book review.

The Elephant in Practice

There then follow ten chapters, each discussing a different phenomenon from a Hansonian perspective. I don't want to go over all of these, so will briefly look at two that I found especially interesting. Firstly, they argue that laughter - which we often struggle to explain, of course, so looking for hidden motives may well be the way to go - serves the function of signalling that we are "at play". When one laughs, this indicates to those around oneself that one is not in a serious mood, which can allow one to say or do things that would normally be taken as threatening.

This theory is fascinating, and for lack of a better theory has changed my view on at least one issue: rape jokes. The ability to laugh at something is an indication that one is not concerned about it - if this theory is true, then, we should probably consider dark humour to be indicative of a lack of virtue, and indeed to actively discourage such a lack of caring in others. Perhaps this doesn't merit an absolute prohibition on such jokes - humour is a value which can weigh against other considerations - but it does suggest that we should be very cautious with such jokes and should never consider rape in itself to be suitable for a punchline.

There's also a defence of canned laughter, which I don't remember well enough to faithfully pass on.

The second section has already gained some attention when I shared a page from it on Twitter: their theory of art. This theory, originally developed by Geoffrey Miller, is that art developed primarily as a way to show off various attractive traits - in particular intelligence, creativity, and conscientiousness. They draw a distinction, which I assume must have been drawn many times before, between the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of an artwork. Intrinsic properties are those that we perceive in an artwork, extrinsic are those that which cannot be known - primarily facts about how it was created. Quoting directly:
The conventional view locates the vast majority of art's value in its intrinsic properties, along with the experiences that result from perceiving and contemplating those properties... In contrast, in the fitness-display theory, extrinsic properties are crucial to our experience of art. As a fitness display, art is largely a statement about the artist... If a work of art is physically (intrinsically) beautiful, but was made too easily (like if a painting was copied from a photograph), we're likely to judge it as much less valuable than a similar work that required greater skill to produce.
This has the consequence that as our ability to produce things has improved, artists have had to find new ways to make art difficult for themselves. They offer this as an explanation for why theatre continues to be popular, despite the various capabilities (camera angles, numerous takes, vast amounts of post-production editing) that film offers: it has the chance to go wrong, and so demands greater skill of the performers. I think this is not the whole story (and nor, for that matter, is Michael Story's theory that theatre serves to make lowbrow comedy acceptable for the middle and upper classes) - theatre offers advantages in terms of one's ability to focus on whichever section of the stage one prefers (regardless of whether or not, artistically speaking, it is the best), and the ability to tailor to particular performances (theatre actors can wait for laughs to subside, film actors can't). But it's a fascinating view on the topic.

As I suggested on Twitter, I am only partially sold on this. How good are audiences at realising that mistakes have been made? Sometimes it's clear - for example, a playgoer may see an actor requesting a line from the stage manager (I didn't see this happen when I saw Twelfth Night at the RSC the other day, but it happened very obviously a couple of months ago when I saw an amateur production of Arcadia) - but much modern art is highly abstract. If one of the lines on Jackson Pollock's No. 5 is out of place, how shall we know? If someone gets the timing wrong or plays the wrong note in some atonal piece of music, will anyone without a score be in a position to check?

I have some other thoughts on this in regard to popular music, which will be a post of their own because they're worth actually developing. For now I'm just going to raise three questions which I think are worth asking of the authors:

How sophisticated is the elephant, anyway?
Some of the signalling stories which Simler and Hanson tell are very complicated. For example, they argue that much advertising works not by influencing us as individuals, but by causing us to expect others to be influenced by it:
When Corona runs its "Find Your Beach" ad campaign, it's not necessarily targeting you directly - because you, naturally, are too savvy to be manipulated by this kind of ad. But it might be targeting you indirectly, by way of your peers. If you think the ad will change other people's perceptions of Corona, then it might make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle.
The classic strawman of evolutionary psychology is that almost no-one has a conscious aim of maximising their genetic footprint. The chain of reasoning "I will do X, because X will make me more attractive, which will allow me to attract a higher quality mate or to attract more mates, which will increase my genetic footprint" will almost never include the less clause, and may not even go beyond "I will do X" if X is something we are inherently motivated to do. The answer, of course, is that we don't need to think everything through - so long as a category of action reliably leads to higher fertility, we may well find ourselves inherently motivated to do it. This explains desires to eat and drink, to have sex, to parent our children well, and many other things. But these things which we are inherently motivated to do are fairly broad classes of action, with no particular cultural knowledge required. The Corona example is actually highly sophisticated cognition, involving not only instrumental rationality but also a theory of other minds. Do Hanson and Simler think this is all being done non-verbally, by evolved instincts - or is there a portion of the brain thinking thoughts, in a verbal fashion, but entirely detached from our stream of consciousness?

How far do signals rely on common knowledge?
Another example from their chapter on consumption:
Blue jeans, for example, are a symbol of egalitarian values, in part because denim is a cheap, durable, low-maintenance fabric that makes wealth and class distinctions hard to detect.
I had no idea about any of that. Indeed, I doubt most people consciously pick up on most of the signals which Simler and Hanson allege we send. So how far can we actually be expected to react to them?

Signalling vs. Creating Meaning
Depending on what kind of story we tell, the same product can send different messages about its owner. Consider three people buying the same pair of running shoes. Alice might explain that she bought them because they got excellent reviews from Runner's World magazine, signaling her conscientiousness as well as her concern for athletic performance. Bob might explain that they were manufactured without child labour, showing his concern for the welfare of others. Carol, meanwhile, might brag about how she got them at a discount, demonstrating her thrift and nose for finding a good deal.
If so many different messages could be sent by the same purchase, then none of them will be sent. I think these are far better explained as the stories we tell ourselves in order to create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Once one raises this spectre, one wonders how much of their theory it could take over. Is the extrinsic value of art not that it could go wrong and is therefore a display of fitness, but that the process of creation is a way of creating meaning? Perhaps creating meaning is just another form of signalling, but this is something that has to be actually argued for.

One piece of evidence in favour of signalling over meaning-creation theories of fashion is a dog that hasn't barked - decorating the inside of clothing. The underside of a shirt could have many messages, verbal or pictorial, that would be understood by the owner but not by observers. The fact that we worry greatly about the outside of clothing but not the inside suggests that it the impression given to observers that we care about.


The book is very readable, and if you like Robin Hanson's other writings you'll like this. That said, it didn't quite live up to the praise given to it by other sources (e.g. Tyler Cowen) - there are some excellent passages, and some wonderful ideas, but there are also many ideas which are in sore need of greater defence. It's worth reading, quite possibly more than once, but it is not - in my view - Book-of-the-year level good, which is the level I feel it has been hyped to.

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